‘If deterrence through India’s conventional superiority is to be established now, then India will have to escalate to a point where its greater resources make the difference.’
‘This is, to put it mildly, both difficult and dangerous and thus inadvisable,’ points out Mihir S Sharma.
Let us objectively consider what we know about the airstrikes launched by the Indian Air Force in the last week of February into Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, in Pakistan proper.
We know that Balakot, the location of the Jaish-e-Mohammed seminary and training camp that was being targeted, is some 80 kilometres from the Line of Control.
We can assume then that the IAF warplanes went some distance into Pakistani-controlled airspace given that, reportedly, Israeli SPICE-2000 pre-guided bombs were used that have a glide range of about 60 km.
To be clear, this represents three significant innovations to India’s arsenal of retaliation for attacks by Pakistan-backed jihadists.
First, the use of air power; second, the willingness to enter Pakistani airspace; and third, the willingness to strike in Pakistan proper and not in Pakistan occupied Kashmir.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government would be right, thus, to claim that they have shown significantly greater risk tolerance in response to a jihadist provocation than their predecessors.
We should also consider the effects of the Balakot strike.
First, did it achieve its stated military ends? Here we need to examine official statements and independent evidence.
‘Sources’ have claimed 300 deaths and this was widely reported as fact in the Indian media — but it is clear that this need not be believed, as it is not an official statement.
The ministry of external affairs has, however, stated that a ‘very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated’.
This does not put a number on the deaths.
More importantly, let us hear what the IAF itself, the most impeccable source in this context, has to say: ‘We have evidence to show that whatever we wanted to do and the targets we wanted to destroy, we have done that… it will be premature to give number of casualties.’
This is very careful phrasing.
It does not imply that there were a ‘very large’ number of deaths.
It does not even imply, interestingly, that the intention was to directly degrade the JeM installation.
It is thus entirely possible, and even logical, to suppose that the strategic intent of the strikes was to demonstrate the three significant innovations mentioned earlier rather than to degrade JeM capabilities.
This would seem to be a sensible conclusion especially given the copious evidence from neutral sources, including foreign intelligence services, that the JeM and other jihadist outfits have moved their main training camps further away from the LoC a decade or more ago.
It is also worth noting that multiple independent sources, such as the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Laboratory and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre have released satellite-based research indicating that there was no significant damage to the JeM facility.
Both agree that there are clear impact areas 150 to 200 metres away from the boundaries of the facility.
ASPI points out that, given that ‘statistically fewer than 0.2 per cent’ of SPICE-2000 bombs ‘hit further than 10 metres from the designated strike area’, it is likely that the intended target was indeed hit, and the purpose of the mission was to show intent and capability (and not to directly hamper JeM operations).
We now come to the second question about the effects of the Balakot strike.
Does it significantly push the envelope in terms of deterring Pakistani adventurism in Kashmir or elsewhere?
As a reminder, India seeks a method to ensure that sub-conventional war waged by Pakistan can be answered and deterred in a manner that utilises India’s conventional superiority — while staying well below the nuclear threshold.
The problem is that Pakistan’s own air force in response to the Balakot raid carried out a major sortie into Indian airspace that led to the shooting down of a MiG-21 and the capture of an Indian pilot.
Thus, as Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, put it in The Atlantic: ‘Pakistan’s own retaliation serves to reestablish deterrence, by demonstrating it has conventional options of its own short of nuclear weapons.’
From this point of view, therefore, the strikes cannot be called a success.
If deterrence through India’s conventional superiority is to be established now, then India will have to escalate to a point where its greater resources make the difference.
This is, to put it mildly, both difficult and dangerous and thus inadvisable.
Given that, objectively, the outcome of the airstrikes can at best be described as of mixed usefulness to India’s overall objectives, should they have been carried out? Here we have to examine the cost.
By far the biggest cost was that India was spending its hard-earned reputation for strategic restraint and responsibility, built up over successive governments.
This capital cannot be run down forever, and could have been spent elsewhere.
Why it was instead spent on this particular occasion, with not enough to show for it, is a question that only the prime minister can answer.